A mechanical engineer by profession, Babu John set off on a new path to build the now much-respected chain Sky Jewellery. On the cusp of its 40th anniversary celebrations, he tells Anand Raj OK what gives him the greatest happiness – and why he enjoys gar
Babu John from Sky Jewellery tells us how the hunt for a gold chain for his mother led to 40 years of a hugely successful brand.
Babu John mulls the question for a few seconds. ‘Actually there have been not one but several moments that have made me really happy since I set up this gold business in 1978,’ says the chairman and managing director of Sky Jewellery. ‘What truly warms my heart is knowing that for the last 40 years, we have been helping people fall in love, get engaged and married. It feels special to have been – and continue to be – a part of people’s lives during their most joyous occasions such as baptisms, christenings, birthdays and anniversaries too. It makes one happy to know that customers will always be remembering us fondly because of the glittering memories associated with gold.’
There is another reason for Babu to rejoice. As the group that he founded is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year – mega celebratory plans are scheduled for later this year – he is pleased that his business conglomerate now encompasses more than just gold but also hospitality, textiles, restaurants and more.
What adds a sparkle to the success story is the fact that Babu did not begin his career in the jewellery business. A mechanical engineer by profession he, however, was always keen on following in his businessman father’s footsteps.
Growing up in Chenganoor in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Babu, after his college studies was for a while involved in state politics ‘something my mother despised’, he says. It was she who persuaded him to move to the Middle East convinced he would become a successful businessman. She would not be wrong.
In 1975, he landed a job in Qatar and while travelling there, transited Dubai and decided to spend a few days with a friend based here. ‘Even at that time I remember Dubai was a growing, bustling economy. Compared to some other Gulf cities, it was way ahead; there was a certain positive buzz about the place,’ recalls Babu, today seated in his plush multi-storey villa in Dubai.
What he also found fascinating was that even during the 70s, ‘the gold business was booming in Dubai. It seemed to be a favourite item to present relatives, family and friends back home’.
One of Babu’s first jobs was with a bank, but he admits that his heart was always in ‘setting up a business and being my own boss’. So, even while holding a regular job, he set up a building maintenance company and a contracting company and would expertly juggle them all successfully.
The foray into gold business, though, happened by chance. ‘One day, I set out to purchase a gold chain for my mother back in India and approached a store in Doha,’ he says. If Babu thought he could step in, choose a chain, pay and step out with the ornament,
Babu is all praise for the relative ease of setting up a business in the UAE. ‘There are no cumbersome tax regulations, no red tape, no bureaucracy…’
he was wrong. ‘I was told that I’d have to wait for some four months before it would be ready simply because most jewellery pieces were made to order and not available off the shelf.’
Peeved that he had to wait for such an inordinate length of time, Babu’s mind got working. ‘I decided to start a gold business where customers would have a pleasant shopping experience without having to wait for months for a piece of jewellery,’ he says.
Once he had an idea, he quickly set to work. One of the first things to be decided was the name for his store. The genial raconteur that he is, Babu reveals that he initially wanted to name the business Arun Jewellery – after his eldest son Arun Jacob John, now the soft-spoken director of Sky Jewellery.
‘However, the authorities in charge of preparing the licensing document for some reason could not get the name right. The second preference was Akash – after the couple’s second son Akash Jacob. While at the registration counter, the official asked him the meaning of Akash. ‘I told him ‘I said it means sky, in Malayalam’,’ says Babu. ‘The official told me ‘We can give you the name Sky to register your company.’ They then wrote ‘Samah’ – Sky, in Arabic – on the document.’
Babu smiles reflecting on the early days. Sipping a cup of tea that his wife Daisy serves him, he watches his grandchildren playing in the living room. ‘Daisy has always been a pillar of support,’ he says. In the initial days, Daisy would help choose jewellery designs and manage the office while Babu would be busy building the business.
It was hard work, he admits. ‘But I was convinced it would be a success and put my heart and soul into my dream to make it a reality.’
It paid off.
In 1988, he decided to set up operations in Dubai and set up the first Sky Jewellery store in the Deira Gold Souq. ‘It was a busy area thronging with customers. I was keen to have a base here because I was aware of the huge potential for business here.’
Again, Babu’s gut instinct was not wrong. ‘Following on its success, we soon expanded and started another store in Karama, then another in Sharjah…’
Today, Sky Jewellery has over 20 showrooms across the UAE, in India and a few countries in the Gulf. The group also has business interests in hospitality, food, real estate, textiles and convention centres in India.
Babu is all praise for the relative ease of setting up a business in the UAE. ‘There are no cumbersome tax regulations, no red tape, no bureaucracy… Once I decide on a store, we would work on the interiors. The registration itself would take less than a few hours. The authorities are extremely encouraging and
helpful in all areas. So it was – and continues to be – a breeze doing business here.’
What are his guiding business principles? Babu doesn’t have to think twice. ‘My dad taught me to follow three rules of business,’ he says. ‘And those are the ones I continue to adhere to and which my sons hold on to and consider rules of thumb for all business dealings.
‘These rules are sacrosanct – be honest in dealings, be punctual and stick to contractual deadlines, and last but not least, offer excellent customer service.’
Babu and Arun, who is now a major decision maker in the company’s operations, believe that Sky Jewellery’s greatest strength is that ‘we offer more gold for the same money. This is one of the major reasons for our success. We are able to do this because the working charges on jewellery pieces is kept low and the benefit passed on to customers’, says Babu.
Arun agrees. ‘Offering value for money and more gold for the same money is our USP.’
How do they discern trends in jewellery? ‘Guessing a good successful design involves experience and a bit of luck. Of course it involves a bit of risk, too’ says Babu. ‘In some case, the risk factor is quite high.’
‘Since I have 40 years of experience in the business, I can look at a design and almost immediately guess whether it will be a success or not. Call it gut feeling, but it has never let me down,’ says Babu in all modesty. ‘For instance, I know which design would sell like hot cakes and which ones might take a bit of time for people to accept.’
Once Babu is convinced that a particular design will be a success, he arranges to get them to be displayed in all their stores.
According to Arun, when a particular design becomes a trend and starts selling well, it creates a buzz in the market that will get more footfall into the stores. ‘Some jewellery designs are popular for a few months while some continue to be trendy for years,’ he says.
‘We also constantly monitor the market, examining designs that people like as well as those that they dislike, what they seem to prefer and what they are rejecting. All that information is useful for us to collate because our judgements and predictions are based on those trends.’
Babu and Arun monitor Western as well as Eastern markets before deciding on the designs to be displayed in stores. ‘There are different types of collections including Italian, Singapore, Middle East, Indian and Wedding. We keep monitoring trends in all these areas and choose the best to be showcased in our stores,’ says Arun.
Babu walks over to ruffle the hair of his little grandson who has just returned home after an outing. The little one gives him a hug before running off to play with his cousins. The Sky Jewellery patriarch is clearly enjoying the little time he has got off from his busy schedule.
‘My business day starts at 7am. Until 9.30, I’m busy on the phone with various individuals and companies associated with our various businesses. I also make it a point to read the newspaper from the masthead until the last page. One needs to be aware of local, regional, national and international happenings,’ says the father of three sons – Arun, Akash and Amit Varghese.
In office at 10, he meets suppliers, discusses strategies with the senior management team, after which he has an intense meeting with heads of counter sales teams to take customer feedback ‘to find out what if any changes need to be made to serve the people better’.
Back home at 2pm for lunch, ‘I like to relax a bit with the grandchildren and family and have a short snooze’, he says.
At 4pm, he is back in office catching up on pending issues after which he visits the various stores ‘to ensure everything is going smoothly. I also take feedback live from the sales people to find out and fix any issues.
‘If there is one piece of advice I give my children, it is that honesty and hardwork are the only ingredients of success. At the cost of sounding clichéd, I want to stress on hard work. Without putting in a lot of effort you cannot expect to reap success. That is fundamental to this business, perhaps to all businesses.’
‘Honesty,’ says Babu. ‘That’s my number one principle. And offering people value for money.’ What are his management principles?
Babu believes in being a hands-on manager and says he never hesitates in rolling up his sleeves and getting down to work if need be. ‘I believe in being available for my staff and for the customers at all times.’
The rules for success are pretty simple, he says. ‘You should be aware of everything that is happening in the various stores. You have to quite literally know every single piece of jewellery in the store and be aware of how it is produced – from start to the completed product. Only then will you be able to sell it well. You must be ready to spend all your time, effort and waking hours pursuing the business.’
Babu has clearly honed this to perfection. ‘We were one of the very first in Kerala to come up with the idea of a wedding centre – a onestop shop for all things related to a wedding such as clothes, jewellery, etc,’ he says. ‘It was a pioneering idea of sorts some 30 years ago.
‘It was Sky Jewellery that first started advertising that it sold jewellery with a hallmark guaranteeing quality – something that has become a standard of sorts in the business today.’
‘Providence led me to this sector’
Was he apprehensive when entering a high value business like gold?
‘It was providence that led me to enter this sector,’ he says. ‘And no, I was never scared. In fact I enjoy taking risks. Overcoming challenges is what gives me a buzz. Also, I was very clear about the vision that I had for the store – to offer people value for their money.’
Arun, who is quietly observing his father, adds that one of the most important lessons his father taught him is to be honest in all business dealings ‘and to stand by what Sky Jewellery is known for – offering jewellery that is value for money’.
Babu smiles. Work is the only thing that gives him a buzz. A lover of gardening and farming, he boasts about the kitchen garden that he has been raising for the past several years. ‘I have chillies, eggplant, green leafy vegetables… a lot of vegetable in the kitchen garden. I enjoy taking care of them during my free time,’ he says.
He then fishes out his smartphone and shows me a few pictures of banana plantations that he has in his hometown in Kerala. ‘We got a lovely crop last season,’ he says.
His other passion is travel. ‘I love exploring new places and discovering little known gems there. One place I’d like to visit? China,’ he says. ‘Although I’ve visited the country a few times, there’s still a lot more to see there.’
Even celebrations are being planned for the 40th anniversary of Sky Jewellery, Babu is getting ready with his next dream venture: a high-end hotel in Munnar, a hill station in Kerala. Thanks to his experience in the hospitality industry – the group has a few hotels and restaurants in Kerala – he is sure it would be a success.
Don’t you think there’re already a lot of hotels in Munnar? I ask. Wouldn’t he have to face a lot of competition?
‘Yes, there is a lot of competition in the sector there,’ he admits. ‘But competition is good. It will bring more business. Plus, it will be a nice challenge. I have a clear vision for the hotel. It will be a success.’
As for his dream for Sky Jewellery, he says he would like to open several more outlets depending on the market’s need for it. ‘We wouldn’t open outlets just for the sake of it,’ he says. ‘We believe in being stable and having a matured outlook for the market and the customers. But let me tell you this,’ he adds. ‘The UAE is the best place to do business, particularly gold business.’
‘Honesty in all business dealings,’ says Babu. ‘That’s my number one principle. And the second principle is offering people value for money’